Eilean Ros, the Trossachs of the Scottish Highlands
Payton Douglas was surrounded by the enemy, his back against the wall…or hearth, as it were. They advanced on him with an anxious look in their eye, and he wondered how they had managed entry, today in particular, as he was entertaining some very important men from Glasgow. Men who were, at this very moment, rather deep in their cups, having sampled the barley-bree distilled here, on his estate, Eilean Ros.
But his enemies were desperate and, by their own confession, in quite a predicament, for they’d been caught completely unawares when their old and dear friend, Hugh MacAlister, had purloined their priceless family heirloom—a gold statue of a beastie with ruby eyes—right out from under their nose.
Griffin Lockhart, from whom the beastie had been stolen, had just argued passionately that while this outrageous insult would be avenged in due time, at the moment, it seemed that MacAlister’s actions had left the entire Lockhart family near to penniless and faced with the forced betrothal of their only daughter, Mared, to the man who had lent them a princely sum to retrieve the beastie: Payton Douglas.
The very same Payton Douglas who stood with his back against the cold hearth, eyeing the only one of the five Lockharts in his study who seemed inordinately relaxed. Seated at his writing desk, she idly twirled a quill pen as Payton stoically listened to the rather windy speech of her laird father. Frankly, one could scarcely do anything else but listen when in the company of so many Lockharts.
This speech, obviously prepared in advance, judging by the way Lady Lockhart’s lips moved in unison with her husband’s, spoke to how Payton, the son of ancestors who had spilled precious Lockhart blood in every war and time of strife, would take their only daughter to wife, having bargained for her in loaning them a substantial sum that was to be repaid within a year’s time.
“’Tis the stuff of popular novels!” Lady Lockhart exclaimed.
Behind her, her daughter Mared smiled as she twirled the pen, as if that analogy amused her.
“Frankly, milady, I’ve never read a novel as befuddling as this,” Payton said. “If I am to understand, do ye mean to say ye’ll no’ honor our agreement regarding the loan I made ye?”
That question was met with a burst of nervous, high-pitched laughter from the four Lockharts standing at this little impromptu meeting: Carson, the laird of what was left of the Lockhart clan; his lady wife, Aila; and their two sons, Liam and Griffin.
“Of course no’!” Liam boomed reassuringly. “But surely ye understand that we couldna have dreamed MacAlister would betray us so.”
“Aye, as ye’ve said several times over now. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did indeed betray ye, and ye owe me a tidy sum, aye?”
The four standing Lockharts looked sheepishly at one another while Mared sighed and opened a book on his writing desk, flipping to the first page.
Grif quickly stepped forward and smiled charmingly. “If I may, milord…the problem is that without the beastie, we’ve no means to repay yer very generous loan—”
“Three thousand pounds,” Payton quickly reminded him, “was more than generous. It was sheer insanity.”
“Aye, very generous,” Grif agreed, casting an anxious glance at his family. “But we made a wee error, we did,” he said, holding thumb and index finger together to show just how wee the error.
“I beg yer pardon, but there was no error. Yer father signed the promissory papers.”
“That he did,” Grif readily agreed. “And we promised Mared’s hand to ye as collateral on yer loan, and…well, plainly put, Douglas, ‘tis no secret how she feels about ye—ah, that is to say…yer reforms,” he said carefully, and exchanged a look with his mother.
“I know well how she feels, Grif,” Payton responded impatiently to his skulking around the truth. Everyone in every glen in the loch region knew plainly that Mared’s objection was to marrying a Douglas, first and foremost—but more importantly, perhaps, to his introduction of sheep in and around the lochs. “’Tis no secret she doesna care for a Douglas. Yer sister, ye might have remarked, is no’ a shy lass.”
Mared chuckled softly and turned another page in the book he’d left on the writing desk, On the Winter Production of Wool and the Timely Shearing of the Na Caorridh Mora, the Big Sheep.
“No,” Grif said with a bit of a frown for Mared’s chuckle. “But ye canna fault the lass for being passionate in her beliefs.”
Mared looked up from the book then, and cocked a brow above a pair of sparkling green eyes, waiting for his answer.
He, in turn, glared at the Lockharts. This was precisely what was wrong with Mared—she had been reared by this lot of blockheads. They all believed—with the exception of Grif, perhaps, and even that a questionable assumption—that the sheep he had brought into the lochs were invading the land historically grazed by their cattle, and thereby pushing the cattle to smaller areas and smaller numbers, and thereby again, pushing them, the most exasperating family in all of bloody Scotland, into poverty.
They were right in some respects. But Payton believed their cattle could not graze properly in the Highlands and were not, and had never been, a profitable venture. Bloody fools, the Lockharts, who believed in the old system of crofting the land and raising lumbering beeves. And when that did not sustain them, they turned to stealing statues or some such nonsense from their English cousins.
He, on the other hand, believed in a system that allowed a fair wage to all the men the land could reasonably support, sheep herding, and, should a man be so inclined (as he was)—whiskey production. Which was why he was eager to be done with this nonsense and return to the four men who might invest a substantial amount of money into his distillery venture.
Grif laughed uneasily again at Payton’s stoic silence. “And…and perhaps our Mared deserves just a wee bit of pity, aye?” he tried again. “After all, she’s got that wretched curse on her,”—(Mared nodded emphatically that she did)—“and really, Douglas, can ye honestly desire her hand in marriage with that curse hanging over her like a dark cloud?”
Payton laughed derisively. “Ach, ye donna believe in that old curse! No one but crofters who fear fairies and goblins believe that old tale!”
“But ye canna deny that no daughter of a Lockhart has ever married,” Liam quickly put in. “Perhaps it is just as true that a daughter of a Lockhart willna wed until she’s looked into the belly of the beast.”
“Do ye think to frighten me with tales of a diabhal?” he demanded, ignoring Mared’s amused smile as she leaned back in the chair and idly ran her fingers along the edge of the writing desk.
“Frighten ye!” Lady Lockhart exclaimed, stepping in to put her hand soothingly on Payton’s arm. “No, no, milord, no’ to frighten ye. Just to speak with ye, on Mared’s behalf.”
He checked his tongue and spoke evenly. “Frankly, milady, I’ve never known yer Mared no’ to speak on her own behalf. And quite articulately at that.”
“Oh! How kindly put, sir!” Mared said sweetly, breaking her silence for the first time since appearing in his study.
“Ye willna honor the loan, is that it, lass?” Payton asked her directly.
“The Lockharts honor their debts, sir,” Lady Lockhart interjected as she gave Mared a withering look. “But we need more time. Just a wee bit more time to find Mr. MacAlister.”
“How much time?”
“Ten months,” Lady Lockhart said quickly. “In addition to the two remaining, of course.”
Another year? With a sigh of impatience, Payton shoved a hand through his hair. He had no idea what to say to them, really. He had no idea how he felt about all of it—asking for Mared’s hand as collateral on the loan had been an impetuous act, spurred by her devilish smile that afternoon in his parlor. Like the Lockharts, he never believed it would all come to this. He wasn’t entirely certain he wanted a wife. He looked at her now, at her smile of pleasure in his discomfort, and thought he certainly must be a madman to want this one as a wife.
But the truth, as much as he was loath to admit it, was that he adored Mared Lockhart. He always had.
In the four months since Grif’s return to Scotland, Payton had not asked about the loan or pressed the issue of marriage. But now that very little more than two months remained in their agreement (the Lockharts had been given a year to repay the money he had loaned them, or give Mared over for marriage) they wanted more time?
“No,” he said decisively. “Ye canna ask this of me—I have given ye a significant sum of money that ye’ve obviously squandered—“
“No’ squandered!” Grif objected.
“What ye did with it is no concern of mine, but ye canna repay me as we agreed, and thereby, ye leave me no choice.”
“Land,” Grif said quickly. “We can repay ye in land.”
Payton considered that for a moment. It was a plausible option, but not terribly desirable. The Lockhart land sat across the mountain Ben Cluaran from his estate. If he were to take land to repay the debt they owed him, it would leave them with precious little to farm. And it would be near to impossible for him to make much use of that land, separated from his estate as it was. The manpower required to farm it would be far costlier than the yield. The only way it would be of use to him is if he could put sheep on it, and he rather doubted the Lockharts would allow it, what with their stubborn love of cows.
He shook his head and looked at the laird. “Ye agreed to my terms, Lockhart. I’ll ask that ye set a date for the betrothal.”
Mared’s smile suddenly faded. She slapped the book shut and looked at her father, as did everyone else in that stuffy room. Carson thoughtfully rubbed his chin, then sighed wearily. “We shall set the date a year and a day from whence the loan was made, then,” he said after a moment.
“Carson!” Lady Lockhart cried.
“Ach, mo ghraidh, he’s right, ye know he is! We agreed to the terms of the loan, as did Mared—“
“Under considerable duress, Father!” Mared interjected.
“Aye, perhaps,” he said, turning to look at her. “But ye agreed all the same. We knew there was a possibility Grif wouldna succeed, and now we must honor our word, daughter. Ye must do so, as well.”
Lady Lockhart gasped.
“’Tis too late, Aila,” Carson said gruffly. “What else is left to her, then? He’s the only man in the parish who puts no stock in fairies and goblins and will have her!”
That did not soothe Lady Lockhart or Mared, whose expression grew quite murderous.
“Ye must no’ fear yer welfare, lass,” Payton softly assured her. “On my honor, I will always treat ye well.”
“Ach, how can ye pretend so?” she demanded. “The Douglases and the Lockharts have been sworn enemies for years!”
“Ye donna understand, Payton Douglas!” Lady Lockhart insisted firmly. “‘Tis no’ Mared’s welfare that we fear—‘tis yer welfare.”
She said it so earnestly that Payton couldn’t help but laugh. “I donna fear her,” he laughingly assured her. “Ye’ve nothing to fear, then, for she canna hurt me,” he said, and laughed again at Mared’s glower.
She had come to her feet, was standing behind the desk with her arms folded implacably across her trim middle. “I willna marry ye, Payton Douglas.”
“Mared!” Lady Lockhart cried.
But Payton chuckled and thought that it might be fun to tame the fire in her in his bed. “Aye, ye will, Mared. And as there is nothing further to discuss, please excuse me. I’ve guests,” he said, and with a curt nod for the impossible Lockharts, he strode out of the stuffy room, smiling inwardly at thoughts of Mared in his bed.